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10.IV.A

The Great Fire of 1776

 
 
The Great Fire of 1776
Photo Credit: CUNY.edu
 
     
 

The Great Fire of 1776 began on the eve of September 21, six days after the British invasion of New York City (NYC), a significant victory for the British in the American Revolutionary War. The fire started in a wooden building near White Hall Slip, called the Fighting Cocks Tavern, a fun house visited by the city's most disreputable residents. It was fanned by winds south west of the city and spread rapidly into the night, demolishing 493 buildings and houses in the process. With fire fighters missing from the scene, the fire raged unchecked, consuming a third of the city's infrastructure. The responsibility for putting out the fire fell on the British soldiers, who soon discovered that fire equipment had been sabotaged. Outraged, they immediately put the blame on Americans, arresting over 200 patriot sympathizers and brutally executing many of the primary suspects involved.

Anticipating the British invasion of New York, General George Washington had retreated from his base in Harlem Heights only a few days prior to the outbreak of the fire. Before this measure was taken, Washington met with members of the continental congress to discuss a defense strategy for NYC. Knowing that the British had strategic military advantage and that there was little hope of retaining the city, a suggestion was made to burn down NYC to eliminate any profit the British might gain from its capture. This plan was quickly rejected, but it is speculated that some patriot sympathizers carried it out independently.

Following this incident the British, upon realizing the threat fire posed to their new base, built their own fire department in the city but otherwise left the damage unrepaired. Not much was done to improve the fire department during the war and even after the American victory in 1783. The firefighting techniques were not kept up to speed for the fast growing NYC population. Slowly, as the need for better firefighting technology became more pronounced, new and improved measures were taken to guarantee a reliable response for fire emergencies in the future. But the City remained behind the curve for decades, as demonstrated by the fire of 1835.

 
     
 

Visit Additional Major NYC Fires:
Fire of 1835
General Slocum Fire (1904)
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (1911)
Bankers Trust Building (1993)

Return to Disaster Section

 
     
     
 
Sources:
sonofthesouth.net-1776_great_ny_fire
virtualny.cuny.edu-great_fire_of_1776
 
Baruch College Weissman Zicklin School of Business NYCdata